It seems like every week someone you know is discussing the sad news that a friend or relative has dementia.
The distress it causes to families is immeasurable and on top of trying to cope with the challenges the condition presents, there’s that niggling fear…will it happen to me?
In this article, we examine what dementia is, what causes it and how you can allay your fears by making nutrition and lifestyle changes that may potentially prevent brain deterioration in old age.
- What is dementia?
- The causes of dementia
- The importance of antioxidants in brain health
- Arming yourself with nutrients that can make a difference
- Lifestyle changes that reduce the risks
As the year's progress, memory lapses occur more and more frequently, the process of ageing means your brain, as well as your body, slows down, and you become less flexible both physically and mentally.
Common difficulties are remembering names of places and where you left your keys and whilst this is a minor irritation to some, it can provoke intense anxiety in others especially where there may be a family history of dementia.
Memory loss is perhaps an inevitable part of growing old, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will eventually progress to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease (AD).
So, what can be done about memory loss, how can you maximise your brain function?
As with most chronic health conditions prevention is better than cure.
There are several strategies to help maintain optimal mental health, but one of the most important is ensuring you supply your brain with the nutrients it needs and keep your antioxidant levels topped up.
Dementia is a general term that encompasses loss of memory and progressive deterioration of mental functioning.
The loss of cognitive function affects a person’s ability to think, remember or reason to such an extent that it significantly affects their daily activities and quality of life.
Sufferers may also experience behavioural abnormalities such as mood swings, agitation, aggression, anxiety, depression, irritability and sleep disturbances. (3)
There are many types of dementia, but AD is the most common.
Age is the primary risk factor for developing dementia and although AD can occur at any age, it most commonly occurs after the age of 50.
On a global scale, the incidence of dementia has increased dramatically, from 35.6 million in 2010 to 46.8 million in 2015. (2)
In the UK alone dementia is now the leading cause of death, overtaking heart disease, lung cancer and strokes. (4)
If you are a woman over the age of 60 it is more likely that you will develop dementia than breast cancer.
The brain is a vital organ, yet extremely vulnerable to various insults.
It is regularly subjected to viral and bacterial pathogens, oxidative stress, inflammatory molecules, and macronutrients.
In a normal healthy brain, the blood brain barrier protects it, by regulating all molecules that are transported between the brain and blood.
Only highly specific molecules that are essential to the brain such as glucose and oxygen can pass through.
However certain conditions can compromise the integrity of the blood brain barrier, increasing its permeability including:
- Oxidative stress
- High blood pressure
- Lipids (Fats)
- Mental stress
Disturbances to the blood brain barrier allow potentially neurotoxic molecules to cross into the brain, promoting inflammation and oxidative stress.
These factors can contribute to the onset and progression of cognitive decline.
Beta-amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles are also strongly implicated in the development of AD.
Beta-amyloid particles are sticky and clump together forming plaques, which then block cell to cell signalling. Beta-amyloids also activate an immune response that triggers inflammation.
Neurofibrillary tangles are proteins within the cells that don’t function as they should, instead forming tangles that affect the brain cell’s ability to communicate with other brain cells, eventually culminating in cell death.
This disease seems to have many causes, however, scientists agree that oxidative stress and inflammation are established pathways to dementia. (1)
The brain is susceptible to oxidative stress, which increases during ageing and is considered a major contributor to neurodegeneration.
An increase in substances that regulate the inflammation associated with areas of high neurodegeneration is also seen in ageing brains.
As inflammation in the brain increases, the body responds by releasing inflammatory compounds to aid healing, however, these can be destructive to the healthy cells too resulting in irritation and tissue deterioration.
Research investigating the effects of antioxidants on brain health has accelerated over the years and confirms the notion that cognitive decline may be due to oxidation or inflammation. (7)
Scientists believe that antioxidant defences decline with age and we lose the ability to produce the high levels of antioxidants that the body needs to cope with increasing environmental factors such as pollution, processed foods, contaminants and modern-day stressors.
Antioxidants are substances that help to neutralise and protect the cells and tissues against highly reactive and harmful chemicals known as free radicals.
Free radicals have the potential to damage DNA, proteins and lipids (fats) in cell membranes.
The brain’s nerve cell membranes contain high levels of poly-unsaturated fats, so they are extremely vulnerable to free radical attack.
Damage from these molecules has been implicated in ageing and cognitive decline.
Because antioxidants can help to keep damaging free radicals and inflammation in check, they are vital for brain health.
Antioxidants are either water-soluble or fat-soluble substances and therefore exert their effects in water or fat.
The brain needs a good supply of both.
For example, vitamin C is a water-soluble antioxidant that protects the watery areas within cells against free radical damage.
By contrast, vitamin E is a fat-soluble antioxidant that neutralises damage within the cell membrane, (which is made up mostly of fats). (22)
There are other more unique antioxidants such as Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA), which is able to function in both water and fat-soluble environments, giving it a much broader spectrum of antioxidant action within the brain.
Regeneration of other antioxidants
When antioxidants neutralise a free radical, they become oxidised (inactivated) and are no longer able to neutralise additional free radicals.
Antioxidants such as ALA are able to regenerate other antioxidants from their inactive forms back to their free-radical fighting forms.
These regenerative powers extend to vitamin C, vitamin E, glutathione and coenzyme Q10. ALA can, therefore, enhance the lifespan of these important and powerful antioxidants.
Growing scientific research is providing evidence that many nutrients in food offer protective factors to support the ageing brain.
Nutritional intervention may, therefore, play a major role in supporting your brain health throughout your life and well into your twilight years.
Including a good mix of the following brain supportive nutrients could provide some insurance against brain deterioration and cognitive decline.
Various small studies have shown that acetyl l carnitine slows down mental deterioration in patients with Alzheimer’s disease and appears to have a beneficial effect on short term memory. (17)
As you age you become more susceptible to the ravages of oxidative damage.
Experts believe oxidative mitochondrial decay is a major contributor to ageing.
This is due in part to the oxidative damage to proteins that affect enzyme function and activity.
ALA can pass easily into the brain, and it is thought to have protective effects on brain and nerve tissue by preventing free-radical damage.
Preliminary evidence suggests that it might decrease the decline in cognitive function in patients with dementia. (11)
Animal studies have shown that feeding aged rats with ALA for a few weeks restored mitochondrial function, increased activity and improved cognitive function comparative to that of a young rat. (15)
A great deal of research has focussed on the neuroprotective effects of astaxanthin, validating its ability to protect the central nervous system, particularly for helping the elderly with age related forgetfulness and other symptoms of cognitive decline. (12)
Some of this research suggests it counters the effects of insufficient blood supply to the brain following strokes.
Other researchers believe its neuroprotective effect is due to its antioxidant potential. (12)
Another reason for the decline in memory and brain function as you age is thought to be due to raised homocysteine levels, which are associated with an increased risk of dementia.
Concentrations of homocysteine are largely determined by an individual’s status of certain B vitamins, particularly folate, B12 and B6, which are involved in homocysteine metabolism.
Trials have identified that lowering homocysteine levels with these specific B vitamins has successfully slowed the rate of brain atrophy. (13)
Co-enzyme Q10 is a powerful antioxidant and essential for powering the mitochondria – the energy centres in your cells.
Mitochondrial function is essential in the brain as neurons require high levels of energy to transmit messages.
Mitochondrial dysfunction has been implicated in the development of many brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Several trials involving animal models support the use of co-enzyme Q10 in helping to slow the progress of neurodegenerative diseases. (14)
Other small human studies have shown promising results prompting further larger scale trials which are currently underway.
Studied extensively this herbal remedy provides some of the best evidence for treating early Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia. (16)
Researchers believe that ginkgo improves cognitive function because it increases blood circulation in the brain and protects the brain and other parts from neuronal damage.
A standardized extract of 40 - 50 mg, 3 times per day is the recommended dose.
Evidence suggests that this amino acid may help in vascular dementia by increasing blood flow to the brain.
A dose of just 1.6g a day over 3 months was shown to improve cognitive function significantly.
Scientists believe these impressive results may have been due to increased nitric oxide levels and reduced oxidative stress. (18)
Consuming a regular intake of oily fish provides the all-important omega 3 anti-inflammatory properties.
A review of research on omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids & cognitive health suggests that individuals with lower blood levels of the omega 3’s are at higher risk of cognitive decline. (5)
Another recent study also indicates that consuming higher levels of omega 3s could lead to improved cognitive flexibility in adults who may be at risk of late-onset Alzheimer’s. (6)
DHA - one of the active components in omega 3 essential fatty acids, is the most abundant fat in the brain.
Oxidative damage due to age causes a decline in membrane DHA, resulting in cognitive impairment.
Medical researchers have identified that memory cells in the brain could communicate better with each other and better relay messages when DHA levels in that region of the brain were higher.
There is preliminary evidence that DHA may ameliorate cognitive decline and affect behavioural symptoms in major neuropsychiatric disorders such as dementia, schizophrenia and depression. (8)
Research has found using turmeric produces significant improvements in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease.
Curcumin a compound in turmeric was also found to stop inflammation in the brain, and improve cognition and mood.
Including 750mg to a gram a day of turmeric in the diet may be beneficial.
A range of studies both human and animal identify that this brings an improvement in performance and memory.
It is thought this is due to inhibition of neuronal death and reduction in neuroinflammation.
Resveratrol is a natural phytoestrogen with neuroprotective properties that can cross the blood-brain barrier and influence brain activity.
Some scientists believe specific immune molecules that cause inflammation in the blood can enter the brain through a leaky blood-brain barrier.
According to research when resveratrol was given to Alzheimer’s patients it helped to restore the integrity of the blood-brain barrier, preventing toxic inflammatory molecules entering the brain tissue.
The subsequent reduction in inflammation was able to slow cognitive decline in elderly patients. (21)
Zinc assists the body in producing antioxidant enzymes. It plays an important role in memory and learning function and is often deficient in elderly people. (19) Zinc also helps to counter aluminium toxicity in the brain. (10)
Low levels of zinc have been linked to memory loss and are thought to contribute to the risk of dementia. (20)
As little as 30-40mg per day is thought to be beneficial.
Many of these nutrients can be obtained in supplement form for those people who suspect they may not be getting enough in their daily diet.
Overall, scientific literature indicates that former/active smoking is related to a significantly increased risk for AD.
Smoking-related cerebral oxidative stress is thought to be a potential mechanism, which promotes the progression of AD. (23)
The brain improves almost immediately from increased circulation when smoking stops, regardless of age.
Reduce your exposure to aluminium
Aluminium is a neurotoxin that is damaging to the brain.
Some scientists believe that an accumulation of aluminium in the brain contributes to and may even accelerate damage in the brain, such as that found in AD.
It appears that aluminium is concentrated in the senile plaques and tangles that are hallmarks of AD. (9)
Aluminium is found in drinking water and many processed foods, in medicines and cosmetics.
Silicon can help because it binds to aluminium and carries it out of the body. Oats are a good source of silicon.
As a further preventative measure, throw out any aluminium cookware and start drinking filtered water. (10)
Use it or lose it!
Studies have proven that keeping mentally active is the perfect way to protect and enhance brain health by stimulating brain regions that are involved in memory function.
All that’s needed is 15 minutes a day of writing or drawing to enhance nervous system function.
Learning a new language or taking up a musical instrument encourages the brain to make new connections between brain cells.
Sleep helps restore the brain, a lack of sleep can impair reasoning, attention to detail and problem solving.
A small study has identified that losing just one night’s sleep increases beta-amyloids, the brain proteins associated with decreased cognitive function in AD. (24)
Keeping the brain hydrated is important too, without sufficient fluid the brain can become sluggish leading to confusion and memory problems.
Cut down on alcohol
Heavy alcohol consumption drastically raises the risk of cognitive decline and accelerates brain ageing.
Research published in the Journal of Neuroinflammation suggests that alcohol may impede the clearance of amyloid beta in the brain, contributing to the progression of dementia. (26)
Daily exercise provides the brain with 25% of the body’s blood supply, transporting the essential oxygen and nutrients it needs for optimum function.
A rapidly growing body of evidence strongly suggests that exercise, specifically aerobic exercise, may lessen cognitive impairment and reduce dementia risk. (27)
Free Personalised Health Consultation with Amchara
Written by: Jacqueline Newson BSc (Hons) Nutritional Therapy
Did you find this article useful?
Have you come across any amazing nutrients that are shown to support brain health that we haven’t mentioned?
We would love to hear your thoughts on this subject, why not leave a comment in the box below.